Matthew: It’s Spy Party and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you. ‘It’ in this case being shot by a sniper who is watching the aforementioned shindig from across the street. To win the game, the spy at the party has to complete a list of objectives without drawing attention to their very human behaviour in a crowd of very non-human NPCs. It’s one of those clever asymmetric multiplayer thingies, which is a fancy way of saying ‘you’ll likely enjoy one role more than the other and grow to resent the time you aren’t playing as it’.
I’m definitely a better sniper than spy. I find parties quite hard work to relax at when there isn’t a laser sight swaying on my back. But trying to act with the drive and purpose of an AI is still a delicious bit of role-playing (and something I miss now that Assassin’s Creed ditched its excellent multiplayer mode). Would an algorithm stride in a straight line to meddle with those statue heads? Should I try and fake a glitch and walk against the side of a table? There is something hilarious in making these dumb calls and watching that laser dot instantly snap to your back.
On the plus side, I like that the spy’s secret code word to contact the double agent is ‘banana bread’. This is because, 1) I like banana bread and enjoy being reminded of its existence, and 2) you can fake contact and say the phrase out loud to paint suspicion on another character and there is something deliciously grim about dooming a life with such a dumb phrase. You wouldn’t hear it in a John le Carre novel, would you?
Spy Party is a game full of quirks like these – one of those ‘easy to pick up, difficult to master’ affairs. It’s one of the few games that everyone in the RPS video department instantly took to, and I’ve grown fond of it as a team bonding tool (albeit one that involves more headshots than the usual trust exercises).
Play a few rounds and you’ll start developing theories about which character models are more likely to catch the eye, and which parts of the room are best hidden from the sniper’s gaze. Alex’s excellent mechanic column on the game talked about it in fighting game parlance, and it really does have that vibe of building a favoured strategy. Only instead of debating the value of Ken’s dragon punch over Ryu’s, you’re pondering whether an old lady’s big, purple hat is more or less incongruous than a dwarf in a tuxedo. Come on, of course this was going to be on the RPS GOTY list.
Alice L: I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging but: I’m really bloody good at Spy Party. It’s actually the only game I’m any good at being a hitman in, as I’m quite good at sussing out suspicious behaviour at small (virtual) parties, but less good at hunting an actual target down on a huge map without arousing suspicion. Maybe I should play Hitman how I play Spy Party? And then maybe I’d be actually good at it?
The RPS video team, AKA Team Lemons, have featured Spy Party a couple of times on the channel. One time where I went head-to-head with Noa and obviously thrashed her, and the other was during EGX, when we streamed for the first time ever. (Technically the first game we ever streamed was Human Fall Flat, but it was a weekend of first-time streams, so it counts.)
Spy Party is a great game to play with friends because being on both sides of the screen is thrilling. I do perhaps enjoy being the sniper more than the spy, but I think they both have their charm. Trying to act like AI is something I do well at in real life, walking into a room, awkwardly walking around it, and then bumping into things on my way out is a speciality of mine. So you can only imagine how good I am at it in this game, where you’re most likely to win if you act like a generated computer character. Did I mean to pick up that statue and put it down again awkwardly? Or did I actually just change it from a bird to a bust?
I’m also incredibly – but secretively – competitive, so winning a round of Spy Party feels absolutely magical – and as I said, I win often. I promise the reason I love this game isn’t just “because I’m good at it” but it is because I have had a lot of fun with this game this year. Banana bread.
Graham: We say every year that games are eligible for the advent calendar if they have been substantially updated and therefore feel ‘of’ that year. Spy Party qualifies. I think I first played it around seven years ago, when it was using placeholder human models and assets from The Sims. Its recent updates – the most significant of which includes six new maps – have made it newly relevant again. And if, like me, you hadn’t played it much since those early years, you’ll find it’s now a beautiful, deep multiplayer game through and through.
Matt: “The Skittergate once again work-works!”
Warhammer: Vermintide 2 was my first visit to the Warhammer universe. I bloody love the place.
That’s odd, because it’s a miserable, blighted landscape plagued with rat hordes, dark magic and chaos warriors. Those rats are fantastic at naming things, though, and they’re oh so satisfying to splat.
Is this essentially Left 4 Dead with wizards? Yes. Is that an excellent idea? Also yes.
I prefer it, in fact. Vermintide 2 takes the best ideas from Valve’s horror shooter, and embeds them into a game where the hordes don’t feel like tissue paper. Most enemies are weak, but they’ll still chew you up if all you do is hold down a mouse button. You have to strafe and block, time every slash and use your class ability strategically. Every engagement is engaging.
That’s especially true against the bosses, which have made me laugh more than anything in any game this year. I’ll never forget that time a tentacled chaos-spawn slurped its way around some ruins, its position trackable by whichever friend happened to be shrieking. You think you’re the king of the world, then a half-formed sack of mouths and gore picks you up and starts to eat you.
Then your pal chucks a bomb, and you’re cast to the floor as the beast turns on a fire mage who immediately regrets their heroism.
They don’t really, though. There’s a unique gratification to saving your friends at the last moment, a camaraderie only slightly spoiled by the way my character spent the whole game insulting her fellow adventurers. They’re a snarky bunch, these witch-hunters and warriors, their personalities mostly embodied in bluster and put-downs. That’s OK. I enjoyed apologising for my elven barbs.
If that grates rather than gratifies, then that’s OK too. It’s the banterous set dressing to missions that stand strong without them, to level design that’s visually spectacular and mechanically thrilling. One mission takes place almost entirely within a cave, the very last section a desperate sprint towards the light. Others involve solving simple puzzles while fending off hordes, in one case building to the best ‘I’ve got it!’ moment I’ve ever been treated to.
I wouldn’t call Vermintide a horror game, but it can definitely be a scary one. Fear taps into reptilian circuits that plunge us into the worlds our avatars inhabit, into believing that there really is a bile troll at your back. There’s a totality to panic, an urge to act that grips where other emotions only guide.
Social panic offers a special kind of pleasure. When you’re fleeing from the same rat ogre, or on the brink of being overwhelmed by a sea of snarling rodents, that panic invokes presence in a shared situation. You all have your own roles to play, you all get your moments in the spotlight. Left 4 Dead figured out how to keep players on their toes with AI-horde directors, and the templates for special enemies that necessitate teamwork. Vermintide 2 combines those ideas with its own, resulting in the most fun I’ve had in a co-op game since Portal 2.
Also, hitting stuff feels real good.
Matt: I don’t think I like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for interesting reasons. I still like it quite a lot.
I could point to the side quests, which have had me accidentally murdering the mothers of voluntarily caged idiots then not-so accidentally sleeping with their fathers. I’ve improvised children’s bedtime stories and helped decorate their sad clay model substitutes for friends, and punched Olympic champions to prove I’m good at running.
I’ve also spent a lot of time just fetching herbs, and beating up bears.
I could point to the combat, a vast advancement over the Creeds of old and an iterative improvement to last year’s Origins. There’s the kick, of course, but clamber up the rest of the skill tree and you’ll find varied abilities that suit different playstyles. The different weapons are fun, too, especially the special axe attack that lets you chain one-hit-kill over the head swings.
It does get repetitive, though. After a few dozen hours.
I could point to Kassandra, a Hellenic hero who won’t take nonsense from any malaka. She’s written well and acted better, the best assassin since Ezio. Though she isn’t actually an assassin, and will do murders for anyone who chucks her some drachmae. Character consistency is hard to come by in a game that incentivises stabbing passing guards to top up adrenaline metres.
Ultimately, I like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for its world. Of course I do! Acres and acres of achingly beautiful coastlines, mountains and forests. It’s staggering that Ubisoft have filled so much space with so much identity, with vistas that so rarely look alike. There are nearly a hundred synchronisation points in Odyssey, and all of them deserve a visit.
Oh, and the final boss fight is wild.
Alice Bee: Despite the fact that I am well aware of its flaws, and that I know it is in many respects as shallow as a 1am puddle of wee outside a kebab shop, I cannot get enough of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The frequency with which you ding levels, or complete missions, and get a big gold sparkly swoosh on the screen, makes you feel like you’re achieving something, even when the amount of time you’ve spent playing the game means your real world achievement is less than 0.
It’s also a lot of fun running around Greece and seeing all the ancient places in a pre-ancient form. I was really excited going to Delphi and the Parthenon and Olympia in the game, because I have been to those places in real life on a school trip. stood next to sections of fallen pillars from the temple to Zeus in Olympia. They’re wider than a grown adult is tall. They’re amazing! And in the game I’ve seen them standing up again. (Incidentally, if you are ever in London you can go to the British Museum for free and see half of the surviving marble from the Parthenon, which one of our Lords nicked in the 1800s claiming he had permission from the Ottoman Empire, and we will not give them back. The Museum’s position is that “the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries”. This sort of thing is why England is still not very popular.)
For my analysis of Kassandra, please see this poem:
Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.